Transcript (mostly) of a LinkedIn message exchange:
I hope this meets you well. Would you mind taking a minute to give me your opinion on something I’ve been curious about for some time now. I’ll really appreciate it.
Here goes: How can I preserve my authenticity and creativity while trying to produce “Industry Standard” work?
I’ll be looking forward to your reply
This came out of the blue from a fellow author and took me by surprise. I’m happy to do what I can, and replied:
First I need to know what “Industry Standard work” you mean (what industry? who determined the standard? what constitutes work?).
Regarding creativity and authenticity, long ago (probably 30+ years at this point) I was hired to write a training manual for a word processing system.
All training material I’d ever encountered was boring and dull, so I decided to do something different.
What I failed to mention was my first task was to teach myself the word processing system. As I think of it, it was probably more like thirty-five years ago. The word processing system was for a mainframe (“big iron” and yes, I’m that old) computer and intended primarily for writing code in any variety of languages (Fortran, COBOL, C, ASM, Pascal, … (do any of these exist any more?)). A primary feature of the word processing system was that it itself was a coding engine with a word processing language built on top of it. You could customize the word processor to your heart’s content by modifying the commands. You could create completely different interfaces to emulate whatever system you already knew.
Back to the story…
Teaching myself the word processor for documentation purposes was a greater challenge because the only existing documentation was programmer notes.
Oh, how I excited I must have been, huh?
I wrote short stories for publication at the time, and necessity being a mother, I decided to write a story using the word processor I was to document because I learn by doing. A lot. Not necessarily a lot of learning, always a lot of doing.
And that, learning the word processor by writing a story with it, provided the clue to writing the training manual:
I wrote the training material as if it was a story. Each lesson was a scene in a story. The story itself was about a circus bearded lady who was in an abusive relationship with the circus strongman. She wanted to leave him and the circus, but didn’t believe she had any marketable skills in the non-circus world. Her solution was to learn this word processing system so she’d have a marketable skill.
Each scene/chapter started with something happening between her and the strongman or her and the circus. She’d go back to her circus wagon and use the word processing system to write her diary, each time learning some new word processing skill.
The company that hired me was reluctant to release my training material. That changed within a week. Customers were calling them (no email back then) to say how great the training material was, how enjoyable the lessons were, how much they enjoyed learning about the bearded lady succeeding and making her way in the world.
Word of mouth spread. People and companies bought the software just for the training manual.
I took on the documentation next. The company insisted I write it the same format, and here I disagreed. Documentation wouldn’t work well written as a story.
How ’bout I write the documentation with sidebar references to where these commands were taught in the training manual with little anecdotes of what happens to our heroine when she’s learning each command?
Can you say “success”?
I ended my exchange with:
Be creative, be authentic. Don’t worry about standards. Standards are only standards until something better comes along.
Hope this helps.
Stay warm, well, and safe.
Was I successful? Did I help my LinkedIn author friend?
Yes, this absolutely helps. Thank you very much for taking the time!
Is there a moral? I think so. How about “Be true to yourself. Keep yourself enthused and interested in your work, or find a way to make what you do interesting to you first, others second, and your work will be a breeze.”
(now I’ll look for something to help me remove cliches from my work…)